Dipa Karmakar achieved history in April when she became the first Indian woman gymnast to qualify for the Olympics and the first gymnast of either sex from her country to grace the Games since Tokyo 1964.
Appearing the final FIG qualifiers at the Rio Olympic Arena, a competition that also featured on the Aquece Rio programme as a test event for the 2016 Games, Karmakar successfully completed the Produnova. A hand-spring double front vault named after the Russian gymnast Yelena Produnova, it is one of the hardest vaults in the discipline and carries a difficulty rating of 7.0.
As the 22-year-old from the small state of Tripura in northeastern India said: “Only five women in the world have ever landed it, and I am one of them.”
It was a vault that earned her a score of 15.600, the highest of the 14 gymnasts taking part in the test event. Though she failed to match that performance in the uneven bars, the balance beam and the floor exercise, a berth at Rio 2016 was safely hers, along with a prominent place in the history of Indian artistic gymnastics.
“Half the people in India don’t even know where Tripura is,” she said. “The gym where I started didn’t have proper equipment. It didn’t even have a vaulting table, so we would put mats on top of each other and make do with that. The gym would flood in the monsoon season. So it was quite a struggle to start with.”
After I got the 2014 bronze medal, my life changed. People have made me a celebrity. Wherever I go they ask for a picture and an autograph with me. People treat me like a Bollywood star. Dipa Karmakar India - Dipa Karmakar India
Overcoming those obstacles, Karmakar reached the international stage and qualified for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where she landed a Produnova in her favourite event to win a landmark bronze medal, the first medal of any colour won by a female Indian gymnast in the history of the competition.
Another first for Indian women’s gymnastics came at the 2015 Asian Championships, where she pocketed another bronze, and later the same year she placed fifth in the vault final at the FIG World Championships in Glasgow.
“After I got the 2014 bronze medal, my life changed,” she explained. “People have made me a celebrity. Wherever I go they ask for a picture and an autograph with me. People treat me like a Bollywood star.”
“Since I’ve become a celebrity in Tripura, I feel that I have to give more to my people. They have given me so much love, I feel the need to pay them back. Maybe competing for an Olympic medal would be it, so that they never forget that there was a girl called Dipa Karmakar, who gave them something that perhaps no one else could have given them.”
The challengers for gold in Rio
Karmakar will have the chance to do just that on 14 August, when the Olympic apparatus finals take place. Looking ahead to the vault final, Karmakar picked out the favourites for gold in the competition, chief among them Russia’s Maris Paseka, the 2015 world and European vault champion: “She won the bronze medal in the last Olympics. Her vault is very good. It’s very clean. It’s so clean I think it’s even cleaner now.”
“The North Korean athlete Hong Hun-Jong won the silver medal at the last world championships. She has so much experience on the vault that she’s cut down the amount she practices. But she still performs really well in competitions.”
In winning gold at Beijing 2008, Hun-Jong became the first woman from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to climb onto an Olympic podium in her sport. She went on to collect world championship gold in Nanning (CHN) in 2014.
Karmakar also picked out Oksana Chusovitina as a contender for gold. A winner of team all-around gold with the Unified Team at Barcelona 1992, Chusovitina, who turned 41 in June, is set to become the oldest gymnast to ever compete at the Games and the only gymnast to make seven consecutive Olympic appearances. “This will be her seventh Olympics,” says Karmakar. “She won silver at Beijing 2008. She has recently started attempting the Produnova vault. She represented Germany for many years, but in the upcoming Olympics she’ll be competing for Uzbekistan. I don’t think there’s anyone else in the sport that has the qualities he has, and she’s a mother too.”
Also contending for gold in Rio will be the USA’s Simone Biles, the reigning three-time individual all-around world champion, and the 16-year-old British gymnast Elissa Downie, who landed silver in the vault at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games, bronze at the 2015 Worlds and silver at this year’s European Championships.
In what promises to be an exciting and keenly contested competition, the trailblazing Karmakar will be hoping to upstage her rivals and give her 1.3 billion compatriots another unique achievement to celebrate.